By Allen Anderson with Linda Anderson. Lyons Press. $16.95.
When we lose a dog to illness, injury or old age, our reaction is usually profound loss and a tendency to wait until getting another. But even our reasoned, best-laid plans are fraught with loneliness and the unexpected.
Welcome to Allen and Linda Anderson’s world and the challenge of a jet-black Leaf that has altered their Minnesota landscape physically and psychologically for seven-plus years.
This is a memoir about how a man and dog build a rapport, trust and life together after one is taken from a Harley Davidson and left at an animal shelter with a mate in the middle of the night, and the other is fighting the emptiness from the loss of a beloved yellow Labrador retriever Taylor seven months earlier.
Because the beleaguered black cocker spaniel came with no paperwork, shelter workers called him Harley, for obvious reasons.
On a crisp autumn day the couple decides to drive to a local animal shelter “just to look” at the dogs. But all of us know how difficult it is leave without one on these exploratory trips. Well, the couple’s glimpse at an “ink spot of fur” on the floor of one of the kennel runs with a sign ”abandoned” on the door prompts the pair to meet the beleaguered waif up close and personal.
A trip home to talk about adopting the dog proves short lived. The couple returns before the shelter closes and adopts Harley impulsively, which Allen writes, “I have to plead not guilty by reason of pet lover insanity.”
Leaf comes with plenty of emotional baggage, leaving them thinking their newest family addition might be a puppy-mill product.
Allen, a former cop and now a computer-software analyst and writer, finds himself thoroughly tested by the newcomer his veterinarian calls “a troubled teenager.”
Leaf’s antics of chasing the household cats has the house resembling a war zone. But gradually Anderson sees a slow progress from fearfulness to trust with the dog.
But the focus next shifts to Anderson when he learns that an unruptured brain aneuryrism means he faces surgery and an unknown future. Throughout the author’s approach to surgery, a strong bond develops between himself and Leaf, which Anderson characterizes as BBF (Best Buddy Forever).
He explains, “With his example, Leaf was teaching me to live in the moment. His funny antics, curiosity about all things, and genuine love of life refreshed my viewpoint. His appreciation for the smallest acts of kindness reminded me to stop thinking about my problems and what I didn’t have and cherish all I had taken for granted. It was as if he was saying, ‘You’re missing out on the fun and joy around you.’ “
Watching the dog’s interactions with others in a nearby dog park, Anderson notes, “Leaf’s ability to empathize and be there when someone needed him – would become my lifeline in the days and weeks to come.”
Post surgery as their bond and dependence tightens, Anderson sees each other as “emotionally damaged goods,” largely from backgrounds that produced mistrust in people.
But during Anderson’s healing process Leaf reveals himself in ways the author never experienced with another dog. “In dog years,” he says, “he was a teenage boy who fascinated me with his mix of machismo, intelligence, empathy, playfulness, energy, and curiosity.
“More than any pet I’d ever lived with, Leaf showed me that animals consciously use analytical ability and free will to make choices. . . . His capacity for weighing pros and cons and choosing a course of action simply amazed me.”
But this rollercoaster of emotions takes a dip later when Leaf becomes seriously ill with pancreatitis.
“My surgery and Leaf’s pancreatitis . . . taught me that when it comes to survival, you just have to keep going. . . . His indomitable spirit enriched my own growth, as I watched and learned from how courageously he handled life’s daily challenges.”
This enriching portrait will have you looking at that four-legged, Velcro mate alongside you with soulful appreciation. If so, Leaf’s legacy should read: Seize the moment, cherish the memories and reaffirm your commitment to provide quality-of-life care forever.